Plans for a controversial wind farm on Chiloé Island in southern Chile ran aground last Friday when Chile’s Supreme Court halted the project.
Many scientists and environmental groups had expressed concern that the Chilean-Swedish-owned Ecopower’s plan to construct 56 wind turbines on Mar Brava beach at Chiloé could threaten one of the most important habitats in the Southern Hemisphere for the endangered great blue whale, due to increased boat traffic and possible acoustic contamination from the construction and operation of the wind farm.
But it was not the great blue whale that ultimately derailed the project. In a surprising move for Chile’s high court, which rarely takes measures to halt investment projects on environmental grounds, the project was stopped because of possible impacts on an ancient, indigenous archaeological site.
Much pressure was put upon Chile to require an environmental impact study for the project over the fate of the blue whales, including a December letter to Chile’s president signed by more than 40 scientists worldwide. Under Chile’s environmental laws, an environmental impact study must also be done if a project is sited in an area with archeological value.
The high court said that an anthropological study in the addendum filed by Ecopower demonstrated the cultural and symbolic significance of the numerous small, dune-like mounds of white shells from 5,000-year-old remains of early indigenous inhabitants found on Mar Brava beach, yet the affected indigenous community had been given “no real possibilities to influence the implementation, location and development of the project.”
Hence, the high court said an environmental commission’s approval of the Ecopower project last year was “illegal and arbitrary” because it failed to provide a proper consultation to a nearby indigenous community as required under the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169 on indigenous peoples rights, which Chile ratified in 2008.
A formal consultation was not carried out because the government determined that the shorter-form environmental “declaration” filed by the company was sufficient, arguing that the project was not likely to have the “significant” environmental effects that would warrant a full environmental impact study.
Barbara Galletti, president of the Centro de Conservacion Cetacea, a marine mammal protection group in Santiago, called the Supreme Court decision a “historic victory” that affirms the obligation of energy companies to carry out environmental impact studies “when either our cultural heritage or endangered species are threatened.”
In a short post (in Spanish) on its blog, Ecopower said it would explore ways to revive the project going forward.